The Tao of Basie
Starting this September, the AJW is going to do something never attempted in our 20-year history. We are going to take a swing at recreating the sound of the Count Basie Orchestra, using ten players. That’s half as many as Basie used, but twice as many as we fielded in the just-completed Sonny Rollins season. In fact, it’s the biggest band we have ever assembled.
Normally, I wouldn’t even attempt something this crazy. But these are not normal times. After the 20-year milestone, this is a time for bold strokes, and you gotta admit–with arts education threatened on every front, dragging ten musicians across 120 campuses is a bold maneuver. We are going for it.
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Of course, I have help. Master Arranger Paul Baker has taken ten classic Basie compositions and reduced them for our lineup of two trumpets, two trombones, three saxes, and three rhythm. If anybody can flesh out standards like April in Paris and The Kid From Red Bank, he can. I have the charts now, and I can’t wait to hear them played by the outstanding talent that has been lined up.
One of the challenges with bringing Basie into the schools is that there are so many Basies. The man had an astounding career of over fifty years, and the last thirty were spent during eras hostile to big bands. Yet somehow he held it together, starting out playing stride with smaller-group Kansas City riff bands; then moving to Chicago and recording sessions under legendary producer John Hammond, where his band included giants like Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Earle Warren, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, the ever-present Freddie Green on guitar, and vocalists Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Big Joe Turner, and Joe Williams, among others. The abundance of talent and history there is mind-boggling.
After WWII ended, so did the big bands, and Basie had to regroup like many other jazzmen, forming smaller groups and touring less. But within a scant six years, he was back with the informally-dubbed ‘New Testament‘ band, re-energized by a stream of talented arrangers like Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico, Ernie Wilkins, and Thad Jones. And in one incarnation or another, the Basie Orchestra persisted into the early 1980’s. An astounding run with one leader at the helm.
None of which matters to your average fourth grader, so we won’t mention a word of it.
Instead, we will be talking about the different sections of the band and the role of the arranger. In the classroom workshops, we will play kids simple versions of tunes, followed by Basie arrangements, and then have them discuss the differences. We will teach them to scat over Jumpin’ at the Woodside.
In the performances, we will bring kids up and form teams to play Name That Instrument, where they will be asked to identify instruments and their section in the band by sound alone. The first two rounds we’ll play fair. Round Three will be Anything Goes. After which, a group singalong over Jumpin’ at the Woodside.
Why no history? Because they won’t remember it; it’s just a string of names to them, instantly forgotten. But they won’t forget the fun they have when we divide the audience into Woodwinds and Brass and have them battle out a Basie Call & Response. They won’t forget trying to tell the sound of a trombone from a slide whistle.
And that’s what it’s about, at the Root of Things. Having fun with music. The rest is chin music, and the world has enough of that already.
A mistake I made in the early days–and I made plenty, with my twin advisers Trial and Error–was trying to pack too much information into the classroom workshops. Now with twenty years experience, we finally figured out that less is more.
Which is not to say that the experience may not be overwhelming at times. But hopefully it’s overwhelming in a good way, in the way that makes a kid say, “Wow–I want to learn more about this.” So the kids goes home and says to his bewildered parents: “Have you heard of Sonny Rollins? Let’s get some Sonny Rollins records!”
I’m not making that up, by the way. It actually happened. If we are doing our job right, we leave a trail of mystified parents in our wake. And what we did for Sonny, we hope to do for Bill Basie.
And perhaps Jerry Lewis.
- Posted in: From the Trenches